The role of Pope Urban II in the First Crusade was essential and critical. In fact, as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, he was primarily responsible for convincing and inspiring European Christians to take up arms to reclaim the Holy Land of Jerusalem from the Muslims. This also means that he was also responsible for influencing allied European states to support the First Crusade.
Pope Urban II during the Council of Piacenza and the Council of Clermont
Pope Urban II toured Italy and France during 1095 to reassert his authority after the investiture controversy involving the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. He also spearheaded the Council of Piacenza at the end of this tour. This convention was a synod of ecclesiastics and laymen of the Roman Catholic Church. There were thousands of attendees including 200 bishops, 4000 church officials, and 30,000 laymen.
Among the attendees were the ambassadors sent by Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. The aggressive leadership of the emperor who came into power by overthrowing his predecessors forced Pope Gregory VII to excommunicate him from the Church in 1081. This widened the gap between the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
However, Pope Urban II lifted the excommunication when he became pope in 1088, thus creating a diplomatic relationship between the West and the East. During the Council of Piacenza, the Byzantine Emperor asked the Church and the West to extend military support to defend his empire from the invading Muslim Seljuk Turks.
As a backgrounder, the Seljuk Turks had been launching a series of raids and invasions in the Byzantine Empire since the middle of the 11th century. They successfully took control of Anatolia from the Byzantine after winning the Battle of Manziker in 1071.
Pope Urban II responded favourable to the plea of Alexios I Komnenos. During the Council of Piacenza, the pope asked those present in the synod to lend aid to the Byzantine Empire. In the Council of Clermont held in November 1095, Pope Urban II gave a sermon that summoned the attending nobility and the people to take up arms and defend the Holy Land and the Byzantine Empire from the Seljuk Turks. This marked the beginning of the First Crusade.
How Pope Urban II convinced Europeans to participate in the First Crusade
The primary role played by Pope Urban II during the First Crusade centred on urging the European Christians to participate in the military expedition to the East. This call to arms involved appealing to the religiosity of his audience.
Note that there is no exact transcription of the speech made by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont. Nevertheless, there are some versions written down a bit later. For example, according to the chronicles written by priest Fulcher of Chartres from 1010 to around 1128, Pope Urban II convinced Europeans to participate in the Crusades through a promise of remission of sins.
Translated excerpt from the chronicles of Fulcher reads: “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ.”
On the other hand, chronicler Robert the Monk, in his “Historia Iherosolimitana” written sometime in 1106, mentioned that the sermon delivered by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont was a classical battle speech. The pope appealed to the Europeans by calling the military expedition to the East as the will of the divine. To entice his audience further, the pope also enumerated the gruesome atrocities committed by the Muslims against Christians and Christianity.
Excerpt from the “Historia Iherosolimitana” reads: “They have converted others to the uses of their own cult. They ruin the altars with filth and defilement. They circumcise Christians and smear the blood from the circumcision over the altars or throw it into the baptismal fonts. They are pleased to kill others by cutting open their bellies, extracting the end of their intestines, and tying it to a stake. Then, with flogging, they drive their victims around the stake until, when their viscera have spilled out, they fall dead on the ground.”
Reasons why Pope Urban II supported and promoted the First Crusade
There are several reasons why Pope Urban II supported and promoted the First Crusade. Most would argue that the pope and the Church were naturally accountable for reclaiming Jerusalem and the rest of the Levant. This was obvious. Most of the narratives in the Bible took place in the Levant. It was also the birthplace of Jesus Christ and Christianity. Nonetheless, European Christians have regarded the region as their spiritual home.
Note that the Seljuk Turks had pillaged holy cities and churches in the Levant when it began attacking the Byzantine Empire. They also disrupted Christian pilgrimage and endangered the safety of the pilgrims. In other words, there was a need to restore order and protect Christians from the invaders.
But there is more to the First Crusade than the aforementioned reasons. Some historians suspect that Pope Urban II already had a plan to lend assistance to the Byzantine Empire prior to the Council of Piacenza in 1095.
In his book “Crusading and the Crusader States,” history professor and medieval religion author Dr. Andrew Jotischky mentioned that Pope Gregory VII had already conceived the idea of a military expedition to the East to help the Byzantine Empire fend off the Seljuk Turks at the beginning of his papacy around 1070s. The aforementioned plan never materialised and Pope Gregory VII even went on to severe ties with the Byzantine by excommunicating Alexios I Komnenos in 1081. Nonetheless, Dr. Jotischky said that this plan set the stage for future reforms and papal policies concerning the relationship with the Byzantines.
Perhaps, part of the reasons why Pope Urban II supported and promoted the First Crusade involved his confidence in the importance of the earlier plan of his predecessor. To be specific, the Crusades would set the stage for rebuilding the relationship of the Church with the Byzantine Empire.
Several historians have argued that Pope Urban II initiated the First Crusade to reunite the East and the West, as well as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Church. This would be a commendable accomplishment for the pope. It would also be reminiscent of the earlier days of the Roman Empire.
The book “Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse” by American historian of the Middle Ages Jay Rubenstein mentioned that the pope had varied problems that revolved around disunity and chaos. There was a war with Germany and a conflict in France. There was also a struggle of Christian authority within the Roman Catholic Church and against the Eastern Church. Furthermore, Christians in the East were under siege. Possibly, a massive pilgrimage that involved an armed expedition would solve these problems.
Conclusion: The Role of Pope Urban II in the First Crusade
Remember that historical documents that tried to explain in details the role of Pope Urban II in the First Crusade or the reasons why he supported and promoted the military expedition emerged at a later date. For example, in his book “The Crusades,” French historian Jean Richard said that none of the texts involving the Council of Clermont faithfully transcribed the speech of Pope Urban II. Each document presented its own view of the motives of the First Crusade.
Nonetheless, these texts and documents have common elements and themes that give a broader idea about the role played by Pope Urban II during the First Crusade. They also suggested main reasons for initiating such armed movement in the East. Note that the letters penned by the pope and addressed to Flemish, Bolognese, and Vallombrosa used similar elements and themes.
From the discussion above, the role of Pope Urban II in the First Crusade demonstrated the powers and the extensive influence of the papacy and the Church. When Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos asked the pope to lend arms to his empire, he acknowledged the fact that the papacy was not only a figure for maintaining political stability in Europe but also a channel for reaching the military resource of the West.
Both the Council of Piacenza and the Council of Clermont further demonstrated the fact that Pope Urban II commanded a large following across Europe. These councils revealed that central to his role during the First Crusade primarily involved a charismatic leadership. He was responsible for appealing to the religiosity of Europeans and urging them to take up arms to defend Christendom.
Through the acknowledged reasons why the papacy supported and promoted the First Crusade, it also appeared that the role of Pope Urban II centred on serving as a unifying leader of the West and the East. The pope essentially used his expansive influence to unite not just European Christians but also different European states. During the First Crusade nonetheless, Pope Urban II succeeded in presenting a unified Christian front against the Muslims. Photo credit: Francisco de Zurbarán/Oil on Canvass/Public Domain